Saturday, May 28, 2016

Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 28


            Although this story was published in 1917, it gained new attention after the rise in interest in issues of women's rights in university classes.  However, the story may also be worth studying for the manner in which it illustrates the basic elements of the reading process and the nature of the short story form.  The conventions Glaspell uses are from the detective story.  The crime has been committed prior to the beginning of the story; what is left to be done is to investigate and lay bare the mystery by revealing the perpetrator and the motive for the crime.  However, "A Jury of Her Peers" combines detective story conventions with courtroom drama conventions, for as the investigation proceeds, the "jury" examines the evidence and pronounces a judgment at the end.
            In order to understand the mystery that lies at the heart of the story--the motive for the particular way the crime has been committed--the investigators require two things:  a sympathetic understanding of the characters and situation and the ability to discover clues. It is clear that the men investigators do not have such an understanding, but that the women do.  The men go upstairs to investigate what they consider to be the "scene of the crime," while the women stay downstairs to take care of "trifles," which turn out to be clues.  A clue may be defined as a detail that is relevant, that "makes a difference" or that "means" something within the overall plot. 
            As the story proceeds, the women, based on their identification with the accused, discover details--the spilled sugar, the awkward stitches in the quilt, the empty bird cage--that they determine to be clues.  The men, on the other hand, think these are merely trifles.  This difference between meaningless details and meaningful ones is an important distinction for the short story form, especially in the twentieth century.  Since Chekhov and Joyce, the short story derives meaning from the transformation of seemingly trivial details into meaninful details because of the role they play in the contextual mystery of motivation.
            The quilt and the bird cage are the most telling clues, for the bird cage not only points to a specific motive for the way the husband was killed, but it is also a symbolic clue, that is, it is symbolically identified with the wife: "she was kind of like a bird herself."  The image of the bird in a cage, who has the life squeezed out of it by the brutality of the man, dictates, at least in terms of poetic justice, that the man must be killed the same way.  The quilt takes on a similar symbolic importance, for its many pieces from different points of Minnie's life make it a composite history.  It also refers to the process of determining clues and putting them together in meaningful ways;  as the county attorney says, "let's go upstairs again and go over it, piece by piece."   
            The attorney makes the problem explicitly clear near the end of the story.  "If there was some definite thing--something to show.  Something to make a story about.  A thing that would connect up with this clumsy way of doing it."  And this indeed is the problem the reader always faces--how to look at all the details, determine which are relevant and which are not, and then rearrange them in a new meaningful way so that the motive for the mystery can be laid bare. 
            A tight, well-done film version of this story was produced and directed by Sally Heckel in 1980.  The film opens with still shots of the exterior of the house which look like oil paintings of the bleak landscape.  After the body is discovered, as is usual in the detective convention, the investigation begins as the credits roll.  Interior shots are mostly dark as if to suggest not only the closed-in nature of the lives lived there, but also the mystery embodied inside the house.  Throughout the film, as the men condescend to the "ladies," the women begin to uncover the clues and the sheriff's wife, who at first is said to be "married to the law," gradually disassociates herself from the letter of the law to affirm its spirit.  The two women become co-conspirators in the crime, as well as a jury of the accused woman's peers, who, by hiding evidence, pronounce her innocent.

Tomorrow: Frank Stockton's "Lady or the Tig

Friday, May 27, 2016

Jorge Luis Borges, "Funes the Memorious"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 27


            Jorge Luis Borges might well be called a writer's writer, for the subject of his stories is more often the nature of writing itself than actual events in the world.  By the same token, Borges should be seen as a metaphysical writer, for his stories most often focus on the fantastic paradoxes that ensnare those who think.  Because of Borges' overriding interest in aesthetic and metaphysical reality, his stories often resemble fables or essays.
            One of his best-known essay/stories, "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," deals with a French writer who decides to write Don Quixote, in spite of the fact that it has already been written by Cervantes. Borges then compares the two versions and finds them identical; however, he argues that the second version is richer, more ambitious, and in many ways more subtle than Cervantes' original.  In another well-known story, "Funes the Memorious," Borges presents a character who is unable to forget details of his experience, no matter how small.
            If the situations of these two men seem alien to ordinary human experience, it is because Borges is interested in the extraordinary nature of metaphysical rather than physical reality. The fact that Pierre Menard can rewrite the Quixote identical to the original, yet create a more complex and subtle work can be attributed to the notion that one reads a present work with all previous works inscribed within it. 
            The fact that Funes is condemned to remember every single detail of his experience means that he can never tell stories because he is unable to abstract from his experience.  Funes knows that to tell the story of his life would not be a story at all, but an exact recounting of every event and every nuance of every event.  Thus, by the time of his death he would have barely finished classifying the memories of his childhood.  What the story suggests is the fact that absolute reality in all its specific detail is unlivable:  "The truth is that we all live by leaving behind."
            Borges is also particularly interested in human reality as being the result of language and game, as well as the result of the projection of the mind itself.  "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" explores the intellectual productions of an imaginary planet; "The Library of Babel" deals with a library that is infinite in its circular and cyclical structure; "The Lottery in Babylon" deals with a lottery which transforms all reality itself into chance.
            Borges' most common technique is to take previously established genres such as the science fiction story, the detective story, or the philosophical essay, and then to parody those forms by pushing them to absurd extremes.  Thus, most of Borges' fictions are puzzling, frustrating, sometimes shocking, often humorous, but always profoundly thought-provoking.  "Funes, the Memorious" is, in a way, a justification for the fantastic nature of his art, for, as Funes's experience shows, absolute reality is intolerable and inhuman.  Only the fantastic is real.


Tomorrow: Susan Glaspell, "A Jury of Her Peers"

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Grace Paley, "A Conversation with My Father"--Short Story Month 2016—Day 26


            In an interview, Grace Paley said this story is about story telling, generational attitudes, and history.  She says the father in the story is right, from his point of view, for he came from a world where there was no choice, where you couldn't change careers when you were forty-one years old.  Paley has said that the father in the story is patterned after her own father.
            What Paley rebels against in this story is the inevitability of plot, which, because it moves toward a predestined end, is a straight line between two points.  A basic difference between fiction and "real life," Paley suggests is that whereas real life is open and full of possibility, fiction moves relentlessly toward its predetermined end.
            Consequently, as much as the writer might like his or her fiction to be "like life," it can never quite be a similitude of life.  The closest the writer comes to feeling this sense of similitude is when fictional characters are so fully realized that they seem to take on a life of their own and somehow "get away" from their authors.
            After the author tells her second story, the character of the mother does seem to "come alive" both for the author and the father, for whereas the father feels sorry for her as if she were a real person in the real world, the author feels that she has the freedom to do something other than she does in the story. 
            A basic difference between the father's reaction to the woman in the story and the author's reaction is that whereas the father takes her situation seriously, as if she had a separate existence in the world, the author knows that the woman is her own creation; thus, although she feels sorry for her, she never loses sight of the fact that as the author she has the god-like power to alter her destiny. 
            The basic implication of this difference is that whereas the reader can become involved with fictional characters within the predetermined pattern of the plots in which they live, the author necessarily takes a more distanced approach to his or her characters and thus is more apt to see them satirically than tragically.


 Jorge Luis Borges' "Funes the Memorious"

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Robert Coover, "The Brother"--Short Story Month 2016—Day 25


            In Bernard Malamud's novel God's Grace, a modern rewriting of the biblical flood story, the hero, when asked where stories come from, says, "from other stories."  Robert Coover's first collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants, from which "The Brother" is taken, consists of a number of stories based on other stories--fairy tales, legends, folktales--all of which are made more earthy and "real" than their mythic originals. 
            What may have given Coover the idea for this story is the line in Genesis, "This is the story of Noah" and the restrained and objective Hebraic style of the biblical story of cataclysm.  For "The Brother" is the story of Noah's brother, told by him in a folksy, working-man fashion.  Whereas Noah is less than human in his single-minded dedication to following God's command, the brother is just an ordinary guy who loves his wife and tries to support his family.  Whereas God fills the life of Noah, the deity is merely part of the everyday language of the brother.
            Coover's treatment of the conflict between the sacred and the profane is thus quite different from Herbert Gold's "Susanna at the Beach."  There is something sympathetic and real about the voice we hear in this story, certainly nothing of the corruption suggested in the biblical story that made God destroy everyone except Noah and his wife and children.
             The scene in which the brother and his wife drink wine and laugh at Noah's foolishness is, rather than a harsh Hebraic criticism of the earthly, a modern celebration of the real and the earthy.  As a result, when the brother is turned away from the ark by Noah and finds his wife drowned, our reaction is quite different than our reaction to the biblical story may be.       
            Although Noah follows the "letter" of God's command that he should take only his sons and their wives with him on the ark, his refusal to follow the "spirit" of brotherhood and save his brother and his pregnant wife suggests intolerable self-righteousness.  What Coover has done is transform the abstraction of what Genesis calls corrupt humanity into the ordinarily human.  As a result, instead of rejoicing that such men as Noah, the one blameless man of his time, survived the flood, we may regret that such men as his brother did not. 


Tomorrow: Grace Paley's "Conversation with My Father"

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Donald Barthelme, "The Balloon"-- Short Story Month 2016—Day 24


            Ever since Donald Barthelme's first story appeared in The New Yorker in 1963 and his first collection of stories (Come Back, Dr. Caligari) appeared in 1964, his short fiction was both much complained about and much imitated. Critics complained that Barthelme's work was without subject matter, without character, without plot, and without concern for the reader's understanding. These very characteristics, of course, placed Barthelme with such writers as Robert Coover, William H. Gass, Ronald Sukenick Raymond Federman, John Hawkes, and John Barth on the leading edge of so-called "postmodernist fiction." 
            The term "postmodernist" is difficult to define.  Most critics, however, seem to agree that if "modernism" in the early part of the century manifested a reaction against nineteenth century bourgeois realism i(n which writers such as James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, frustrated conventional expectations about the cause-and-effect nature of plot and the "as-if-real" nature of character), then postmodernism pushes this movement even further so that contemporary fiction is less and less about objective reality and more and more about its own creative processes. 
            According to the basic paradigm that underlies this movement--grounded on European phenomenology and structuralism and further developed in psychology, anthropology, and sociology--"everyday reality" itself is the result of a fiction-making process whereby new data are selectively accepted and metaphorically mutated to fit preexisting schemas and categories. One critical implication of this theory is that literary fictions constitute a highly concentrated and accessible analogue of the means by which people create that diffuse and invisible reality that they take for granted as the everyday.
            To study fiction then is to study the processes by which reality itself is created.  The primary effect of this mode of thought on contemporary fiction is that the story has a tendency to loosen its illusion of reality to explore the reality of its illusion. Rather than presenting itself "as if" it were real-a mimetic mirroring of external reality-postmodernist fiction makes its own artistic conventions and devices the subject of the story as well as its theme. The underlying assumption is that the forms of art are explainable by the laws of art; literary language is not a proxy for something else, but rather an object of study itself. William H. Gass notes that the fiction writer now better understands his medium; he is "ceasing to pretend that his business is to render the world; he knows, more often now, that his business is to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is master--language." 
            The short story as a genre has always been more likely to lay bare its fictionality than the novel, which has traditionally tried to cover it up.  Fictional self-consciousness in the short story does not allow the reader to maintain the comfortable assumption that what is depicted is real; instead, the reader is made uncomfortably aware that the only reality is the process of depiction itself--the language act of the fiction-making process. 
            Readers schooled in the realistic tradition of the nineteenth-century novel found Donald Barthelme tough reading indeed. For Barthelme, the problem of language is the problem of reality, for reality is the result of language processes.  The problem of words, Barthelme realizes, is that so much contemporary language is used up, has become trash, dreck.  Barthelme takes as his primary task the recycling of language, making metaphor out of the castoffs of technological culture. For Barthelme, as for the poet always, the task is to try to reach, through metaphor and the defamiliarization that results, that ineffable realm of knowledge which Barthelme  says lies somewhere between mathematics and religion "in which what may fairly be called truth exists." 
            It is the extreme means by which Barthelme attempts to reach this truth that makes his fiction so difficult.  Barthelme has noted that if photography forced painters to reinvent painting, then films have forced fiction writers to reinvent fiction. Since films tell a realistic narrative so well, the fiction writer must develop a new principle. Collage, says Barthelme, is the central principle of all art in the twentieth century. The point of collage, he notes, is that "unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality. This new reality, in the best case, may be or imply a comment on the other realities from which it came, and may also be much else.  It's an itself, if it's successful."  One of the implications of this collage process is a radical shift from the usual temporal, cause-and-effect process of fiction to the more spatial and metaphoric process of poetry.
             The most basic example of Barthelme's use of this mode is "The Balloon," the premise of which is that a large balloon has encompassed the city. The persona of the story says that it is wrong to speak of "situations, implying sets of circumstances leading to some resolution, some escape of tension." In this story there are no situations, only the balloon, a concrete particular thing that people react to and try to explain.  Although we discover at the end that the balloon is the objectification of something personal to the speaker, we realize that because the speaker's feelings must be objectified in images and language, it is removed from life and cut free of meaning.  The participant or viewer then becomes an artist who constructs or manipulates whatever responses the balloon elicits.  The balloon is an extended metaphor for the Barthelme story itself, to which people try to find some means of access and which creates varied critical responses and opinions. 
            The fiction of Donald Barthelme required a major readjustment for readers who came to it accustomed to the leisurely linear story line of the traditional novel or the conventional short story. To plunge into a Barthelme story is to immerse oneself in the flotsam and jetsam of contemporary society, for his stories are not so much plotted tales as they are parodies and satires based on the public junk and commercial media hype that clutter up and cover over our private lives. Because they are satires, many of the stories are based not on the lives of individuals but on the means by which that abstraction called society or the public is manipulated. Consequently, some of Barthelme's pieces insist that the reader have a background knowledge of contemporary philosophic thought (albeit philosophic thought that has become cheapened by public chat), while others are based on popular culture. 
            Barthelme is not really interested in the personal lives of his characters; in fact, few seem to have personal lives. Rather, he wishes to present modern men and women as the products of the media and the language that surround them. Furthermore, he is not so much interested in art that serves merely to reflect or imitate the world outside itself as he is concerned to create art works which are interesting in and for themselves.
            The basic fictional issue overshadowing the work of Donald Barthelme is this: If reality is itself a process of fictional creation by metaphor-making man, then the modern writer who wishes to write about reality can truthfully only write about that very process.  To write only about this process, however, is to run the risk of dealing with language on a level that leaves the reader gasping for something tangible and real, even if that reality is only an illusion.


Tomorrow: Robert Coover's "The Brother"

Monday, May 23, 2016

Julio Cortázar, "The Island at Noon"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 23


             As is usually the case with fables, the focus here is on the illustration of an idea rather than on the exploration of character.  The idea may have developed from Cortázar's perception of an inchoate longing to escape a crowded plane to the small island in the sea below; making the source of that desire an airline steward allows him to emphasize the need to escape repetitive activity and makes possible for him to underscore the increasing obsessiveness of the longing. 
            The central statement in the story that comes closest to expressing directly the idea that Cortázar wishes to explore here is:  "None of it made any sense--flying three times a week at noon over Xiros was as unreal as dreaming three times a week that he was flying over Xiros."  The story exploits the notion of the meaninglessness of repetitive reality and the increasing significance of desire.  Whereas the protagonist cannot keep account of actuality, for everything is "blurred and easy and stupid," when he looks out the window at the island, it is sharply delineated, the nets clearly sketched on the sand. 
            As the story progresses, the fantasy out the window becomes more real than the reality inside the plane.  However, as in Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the transition from reality to fantasy is rendered ambiguous.  It takes place when, "with his lips against the window, he smiled, thinking that he would climb to the green spot, that he would enter the sea of the northern coves naked, that he would fish for octopuses with the men, communicating through signs and laughter."  Because his thoughts of actualizing his desires are rendered in such detail, the reader is lead to believe that he has physically gone to the island.
            When Marini reaches the green spot in his imagination, he hears the hum of the engine of the plane.  The question the reader may ask here is:  where is Marini at this particular point--in the plane or at the green spot on the island?  The final scene becomes even more ambiguous.  On the one hand, the reader may assume that the real Marini falls to his death in the sea with the plane crash.  However, since the only way the reader knows about the plane crash is by means of the fantasy that Marini is having while looking out the window, then the plane crash itself is not real, for Marini is imagining it also.  The reader's ultimate realization may be that there is no reality in a story except the reality of fantasy.


Tomorrow: Donald Barthelme's "The Balloon"

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Joseph Conrad, "The Secret Sharer"—Short Story Month 2016—Day 22


            Making the psychological theme of the double plausible is the central problem in Conrad's "The Secret Sharer," for the protagonist's double is not only projected outside him, but also is dramatized in the story as an external self who has been involved in a crime apart from the protagonist and whose crime is at the core of the moral issue facing him.  The story itself is split between the plot, which focuses on the stranger and the captain's efforts to protect and conceal him, and the mind of the captain who obsessively persists on perceiving and describing the stranger Leggatt as his other self, his double.  
            The story also depends on metaphorical details which suggest that Leggatt has been summoned forth from the captain's unconscious as an aspect of the self with which he must deal.  Although it can be said that Leggatt represents some aspect of the captain's personality that he must integrate--instinctive behavior rather than the Hamlet-like uncertainty he experiences on his first command--it is more probable that he is brought on board to make explicit and dramatically concrete the dual workings of the captain's mind which distract him and tear him apart.  This creation of an "as-if" real character to embody what are essentially psychic processes marks the impressionistic extension of the trend that began the short story form during the romantic period.
            The basic issues the story deals with are the following:   what does it mean to be a stranger to yourself?  What does it mean to see yourself in another?  What does "being in command" mean?  What does it mean to be your brother's keeper?  What does the notion of talking to oneself suggest?  Why does having a secret self split the self?  The very fact that the captain refers over and over to Leggatt as his secret sharer suggests Legatt's precarious hold on his position as a real person in the real world.  Note his use of "as if" in "as if our experiences were identical" and  "as if you expected me."
            "The Secret Sharer" can be read in any one of several different ways.  On the one hand, it follows the conventions of an adventure story at sea.  It can also be read as a story of initiation in which the captain must meet the challenge of command and move from insecurity to confidence in his own ability.  It can be discussed as a story of moral conflict in which the captain must make a decision between identifying with the individual or with the rules made by society.  Finally, of course, it can be read as a story of psychological projection in which Leggatt represents some aspect of the captain's own personality that must be dealt with.  There is no real conflict between these various interpretations, for all of them are interrelated; Leggatt is both outside the captain and inside him at the same time.
            A short film adaptation of the story, starring David Soul as the captain, deals competently with the ambiguity of Legatt's status in the world.  On the one hand, Legatt is indeed a real person in the real world in the film.  However, several scenes in the film suggest his duality with the captain.  First of all he rises up out of the sea directly below the captain's face, as if he were Narcissus.  Then he is initially identified with the captain by close-up shots of their hands:  first a shot of the captain's hand at the beginning suggesting his shaky hold on command; then a shot of Legatt's hand gripping the rail as he comes on board; a shot of the hands of both the captain and Legatt clasped together as they say goodbye; finally, another close-up of the captain's hand on the ship's rail at the end, indicating that he now has a firm grip on command and his own sense of identity.

            Since most of the two-shots of the captain and Legatt take place below-decks, the natural overhead light on the tops of their heads as they put their heads together over a map emphasizes their physical similarity.  Moreover, the fact that most of the dialogue between the two men takes place in whispers suggests the notion of a man talking to himself.


Tomorrow: Julio Cortezar's "The Island at Noon"